THUNDER BAY -- An American desribed as a humanitarian who pleaded guilty to helping a Salvadorian couple cross illegally into Canada told a courtroom he’s not a human smuggler.
Joe Callahan, from the Twin Cities area, appeared for his sentencing at the Ontario Court of Justice in Thunder Bay Wednesday. Police arrested Callahan on July 31, 2011 at the Pigeon River border crossing with aiding and abetting two Salvadorans who crossed the border into Canada illegally.
The court heard that Callahan had driven the couple, whom he met in 2009, along the highway before letting them out so that they could attempt to cross the border on foot.
The 62-year-old pleaded guilty for his role in attempting to bring the couple into Canada.
He told a crowded courtroom filled with supporters that he regretted causing so much trouble for his family, friends and for the border officers.
“I’m not a human trafficker,” Callahan said. “I’ve always been opposed to the exploitation of immigrants.”
Callahan added that despite what the judge decides, he probably wouldn’t be allowed to return to Canada.
Callahan’s lawyer, Francis Thatcher, described his client as a political activists with no prior convictions or arrests and that he was trying to help his friends flee country.
“Callahan had no role to play in the planning, execution or funding of the efforts of (the couple) to cross the Canadian border post,” Thatcher said.
“He had no knowledge of the specifics of how they were going to do it. This is a foolish exercise in extremely poor judgment done on short notice that he (Callahan) immensely regrets.”
The court heard that the notorious street gang MS 13 was targeting the Salvadorian man involved in the case. Thatcher said the Salvadorian man was trying to flee the country in order to protect himself and his wife.
Callahan was faced with his own personal humanitarian mission and was asked to help, he said.
Callahan lost his job as bus driver while in custody at the Thunder Bay District Jail but has since found new work with reduced pay and benefits, Thatcher said.
He also pointed out that Callahan has no connections to any criminal organization, didn’t help the couple for financial gain, exploited them for any reason or put them in harm’s way.
Given all the circumstances, Thatcher argued that a “hefty fine” in the range of $1500 to $5,000 would be an appropriate punishment.
“This was out of character for him,” he said.
Assistant Crown attorney Ronald Poirier said he’s never seen such a display of support towards an accused before in his career. But despite the public support, Poirier said Callahan knowingly did an act that he knew was illegal.
Given the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attack, Poirier said it’s important to take this matter seriously.
“It’s clear that Callahan was not assisting family members,” Poirier said. “That’s important because you know their background. I’m my impression that Callahan is a genuine activist. However, I doubt the backgrounds of the individuals were that well known. To do what Callahan did exposes this country to threats.”
Poirier argued that the story the couple gave Callahan could have been a lie and was playing more of a role than just a transporter.
After dropping the couple off just before the border, Callahan was going to pick them up again and drive them to Thunder Bay, he said.
“He’s not simply transporting someone from A to B,” he said. “He exposed this country whether he knew it or not to dangers because they were strangers.”
Poirier asked the judge to sentence Callahan for an additional period in jail in the range of three to six months.
The sentencing is expected to conclude Thursday at 3 p.m.
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